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Historical Trends in Emigration and Immigration

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Historical Trends in Emigration and Immigration

Ahmet İçduygu, Deniz Sert

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During the first years of its existence, the new Republic of Turkey faced two parallel international migratory movements: the mass departure of non-Muslim minority populations and the influx of Turkish Muslim populations that were left outside of the borders of the Republic.

The Republic of Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which was partitioned by the Allied Powers after World War I.

1923-1960s: Creating the Turkish nation-state

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire began with the Young Turk Revolution that reversed the suspension of the Ottoman parliament by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, marking the onset of the Second Constitutional Era. It ended with the aforementioned partitioning, which prompted the establishment of the Turkish national movement for independence under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1919. What followed was the War of Independence that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the establishment of the Republic in 1923.

During the first years of its existence, the new Republic of Turkey became a landscape for two parallel international migratory movements: the mass departure of non-Muslim minority populations (e.g., Greek Orthodox Christians to Greece) and the influx of those Turkish Muslim populations from the Ottoman Empire (especially the Balkans) that were left outside of the borders of the Republic. Not only in Turkey have policies aimed at nation-building been the cause of international migratory movements; the first half of the twentieth century was very much marked by state and nation building, generating large waves of forced migrations and deportations :

Thus, these initial population transfers were the result of the independence movements and the nation-building efforts of the new states emerging from the Ottoman Empire. This was a trend that began with the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, which resulted in mass departures of Muslim populations from the Balkans to Anatolia and the exodus of Christians in the opposite direction. Within this context, two notable movements were the deportation of the Armenians during 1915/16, which led to the loss of many lives among the Armenian population in Anatolia, and the population shift between Turkey and Greece in 1922/23, which resulted in the exchanging of a large proportion of Anatolia's Christian population for Muslims in Western Thrace.

Muslim and non-Muslim populations in Turkey, 1914-2005 (in thousands)

Year 1914 1927 1945 1965 1990 2005
Muslims 12.94113.29018.51131.13956.86071.997
Armenians 12047760646750
Jews 1288277382927
Others 1767138745045
Total 15.997 13.630 18.790 31.391 57.005 72.120
Percentage of
19,1 2,5 1,5 0,8 0,3 0,2

Sources: From 1914 to 1965, Ottoman and Turkish censuses and statistical abstracts; from 1990 to 2005, personal communication of representatives of non-Muslim communities to the author

During the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the first twenty years of the Republic of Turkey, the country's non-Muslim minority populations were driven out. The majority of the members of non-Muslim communities migrated to a range of countries in the world. To illustrate, while there were almost 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians living in Turkey in 1914, their number had decreased to 104 000 by 1945; a large number presumably had moved to Greece (see table). Similarly, the Armenian community declined from 1.2 million to 60 000 persons between 1914 and 1945 (see Table 1). Successively, large numbers of Muslims belonging to a range of ethnic groups arrived in Turkey from the Balkans. Between 1923 and 1939, approximately 400 000 Muslims emigrated from Greece to Turkey. As a consequence of this process of ethnic homogenization, the demographic structure of the population of the Republic was considerably altered: the percentage of non-Muslims among the population dropped from 19% before World War I to 2.5 % thereafter. While non-Muslims composed approximately 3 % of the total population of Turkey in the 1920s, their number had decreased to 0.2 % by 2005 (see table).

At the same time, exclusive priority was given to encouraging and accepting immigrants who were either Muslim Turkish speakers, or who were officially regarded as belonging to ethnic groups that would assimilate into a Turkish identity without difficulty, i.e., Bosnians, Circassians, Pomaks, and Tatars from the Balkans. From the foundation of the Republic in 1923 until 1997, more than 1.6 million such immigrants arrived and settled in Turkey and were readily accepted into society.

The early years of the Republic of Turkey were a period of homogenization of the population within its borders into a Turkish-Muslim identity. This process was consolidated by the state policies in the early 1930s. The Law on Settlement of 1934 is the major piece of legislation that sustains this conservative state philosophy even today. The law contains terms on who can immigrate, settle, and acquire refugee status in the country, giving notable preference to immigrants and refugees of 'Turkish descent and culture'.

1950s-1970s: Labor emigration to Western Europe

Turkish emigration to Western Europe dates back to the economic boom of the 1950s and the resulting high demand for manual labor in Western European receiving countries. In signing labor migration treaties, sending countries such as Turkey saw an opportunity to decrease their rate of unemployment and develop their economies through emigrant remittances. Turkish immigrants were late in joining this post-World War II flow of workers. There were three main reasons for this delay. First, Turkey lacked the colonial ties (such as those between Morocco and France) that many of the labour-supply countries had with the labour-recruiting countries of Western Europe. Second, other labour-supply countries were geographically closer to the recruiting countries. Finally, Turkey did not have an established tradition of emigration like other labour-supply countries such as Italy and Spain. Nevertheless, people from Turkey now comprise the largest immigrant community in Western Europe.

The first bilateral agreement that allowed Turkey to export labor to Western Europe was signed with Germany in 1961 and was followed by agreements with Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium in 1964, France in 1965, and Sweden and Australia in 1967. Similar agreements were also signed with the United Kingdom in 1961, Switzerland in 1971, Denmark in 1973, and Norway in 1981. The underlying hope was that these 'guest workers' would come back to Turkey with new skills and help transform its agricultural economy into an industrial one. Despite this hope, many of the guest workers chose to settle in their host countries, and many brought their families to live with them. Moreover, it was mostly those with vocational training and skilled laborers that chose to emigrate rather than the unskilled ones, although they were often joined by largely unskilled female migrants.

Turkish labor migration to Western Europe peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and lost momentum with the economic decline that followed the 1973 oil crisis, and especially with Germany's decision to end its guest worker program. In the following era, emigration from Turkey to Western Europe instead took place via family reunification and marriage, and, later, also asylum-seeking.

1960s and 1990s: Diversification of labor emigration and Turkish asylum-seekers

When the 1973 oil crisis induced an economic downturn in Western Europe that led to a decline in Europe's intake of migrant labor, oil-rich Arab countries became destinations for Turkish workers who were looking for opportunities abroad. Migration between Turkey and the Arab countries can be grouped into three stages: from 1967 to 1980 there was an increasing influx of Turkish migrants into Libya and Saudi Arabia; from 1981 to 1992 the range of destination countries expanded to include Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, and Jordan; and from 1993 onwards there was a steady decline in the number of Turkish migrants heading to the region.

This migration pattern was largely a result of global political and economic developments. Similar to the effect of the 1973 oil crisis to Europe, the Gulf Crisis of 1991 caused a decline in migration movements to the Arab world. At the same time, with the end of the Cold War, the break up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), new destinations emerged for Turkish migrants. Initially there were contract-based migrations to Russia, Ukraine, and the Turkic Republics, where Turkish construction companies had been awarded contracts for renewing infrastructure. Later, Romania and Poland became destination countries for contract-based Turkish migrants. In 1995 the number of Turkish emigrants admitted by the CIS countries was almost double the number received by Arab countries.

In the 1960s, the national economic situation and the policies of the Turkish state had caused the emergence of a new migration pattern. Under pressure due to growing unemployment in the country, Turkey had embarked on a search for new markets to carry on with its labour-exporting activities. In fact, the timing of the bilateral labor recruitment agreement with Australia in 1967 was a part of the Turkish emigration strategy of "falling back on another country if one showed signs of saturation and diminished absorption ability". By the end of the century, Turkish immigrant communities in traditional immigration countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, had grown considerably.

Yet, emigration from Turkey has not always been in the form of labor migration. Since the early 1980s, the intervention of the Turkish military in civilian politics and the escalation of violence resulting from the efforts to subdue the PKK , a separatist Kurdish movement in south eastern Turkey, have caused many Turkish citizens to seek asylum in Western Europe. Movements related to asylum and refuge are an important aspect of Turkish migration and are dealt with in detail below (see Refuge and Asylum).

Since 1979: Becoming a country of transit and destination

Apart from the influx of Muslim populations in the earlier years of the Republic, the first wave of migrants to Turkey arrived from Iran in 1979, following the regime change in that country. Emigration to Turkey was a temporary arrangement for most of the Iranians, who subsequently departed for Europe or North America. This was followed by the arrival of Iraqi and Bulgarian citizens, who also sought refuge in Turkey (see Refuge and Asylum).

While many migrants have come to Turkey seeking protection from political persecution and violence (see Refuge and Asylum and Irregular Migration), Turkey has also received many economic migrants, especially from the former Soviet Republics. Recently, Turkey has even been attracting an increasing number of immigrants from Western Europe. There are several reasons for this change. Firstly, on the macro level, the transition to democracy and the liberalization of the economy after the military coup of 1980, as well as the general impact of the entire globalization process, has turned Turkey into a more desirable place for immigrants. Secondly, since the second half of the 1980s, Turkey has become an attractive vacation destination for Western European tourists who later chose to come back for longer periods. Thirdly, the start of accession negotiations with the EU has played a role in making Turkey an acceptable choice for long-term residence among EU nationals. All in all, in addition to being a country of origin and transit, Turkey is becoming a country of destination for a considerable number of foreign nationals, through both regular and irregular channels.



  1. See Marcus (1985), Zolberg (1983).

  2. See Kirişci (1996, 2000).

  3. With the end of the Cold War, there were also migration flows into Turkey in the form of luggage-trade. For further information on this form of migration, see Yükseker (2003).

  4. Bahadır (1979).

  5. 'Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan' (Kurdistan Workers' Party).

  6. Kaiser (2007).

  7. Ibid.

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